- Interview by
- Marcus Barnett
In recent years Woodcock marked himself out as a prominent critic of Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of pursuing “angry intolerant pacifism” over the Syria war vote in 2015, of “gesture politics” over the Yemen crisis in 2016 and, on his departure from Labour, branding him a “national security risk.” As an independent MP he has joined calls for a new centrist party.
But the Barrow and Furness Labour Party is moving in another direction. After much exasperation with their former MP’s constant attacks on Corbyn, the local party overwhelmingly selected war veteran, RMT member and left-winger Chris Altree earlier this month to replace Woodcock as Labour’s candidate.
Tribune’s associate editor Marcus Barnett spoke to Altree about his background, political beliefs, and ideas of what Labour needs to do to win back Barrow.
Could tell us a bit about yourself and your political beliefs?
I was born and bred in the Barrow constituency. I’m the son of a disabled single parent, and grew up on the Ormsgill estate, where I still live.
Ormsgill is an environment where community flourishes even in adversity – it is the very essence of what Labour is all about and it shaped my values. Because of Labour policies, I knew that my mum was in safe hands while I was able to afford to attend the local sixth form with a maintenance allowance, and go on to study politics at Lancaster University.
Following that, I joined the Royal Signals Corp and served for five years, which included a tour of Afghanistan. When I came home from the army, I found myself fighting the benefit system and the bedroom tax.
However, at this point you had the Labour Party abstaining against welfare cuts. It’s no wonder Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message spoke to me, and he was one of the reasons I got involved in the Labour Party. He brought hope and freshness to a tired political landscape and I am proud to be standing as a Labour candidate.
It’s rare to see former frontline soldiers getting involved in labour movement politics. How would you say your time fighting in a war shaped your views?
My time in the army was a significant part of my life. I learned a lot in Helmand. Our intervention was short-term, with no plan of how to change the society overall, to support democratic government for the long-term, or to build infrastructure. I felt we needed to support and plan for the next generation. Without it, of course, the poppy fields are back, flooding heroin into Europe and onto the streets of my constituency.
However, I’m more driven by the experiences of my friends, family and community in Barrow. This Tory government has overseen the biggest cuts to our public services in a generation. Our NHS and social care system is in crisis, our schools are struggling under the weight of budget cuts and cuts to police are putting our safety at risk. That is what drives me.
Since you are a Barrow local and a war veteran, what are your thoughts on John Woodcock?
I will let other people judge John Woodcock. I am standing for Barrow because I believe that the Labour Party offers the best hope for our area. The people of Barrow and Furness need a Labour MP who will put their needs first and I believe I am the right candidate to do that.
How do you think that Labour’s policy on Brexit is received in Barrow, a town which voted overwhelmingly to leave?
I think that the Leave vote was, above all, a howl of anger from many people who are broken, disenfranchised and struggling. That anger is still there – throughout the north of England. We need to listen to that and engage in a conversation about how to address those issues.
Woodcock has consistently derided Corbyn as unpatriotic, and claims that this goes goes down poorly with voters in Barrow. What do you think about the relationship between left-wing politics and patriotism?
Freedom, tolerance, standing up for ordinary people – that is what I think being British is all about, and these values are Labour values. What is more patriotic than defending our NHS, investing in our communities, and providing quality education for all?
The Labour vision for this country is one that can truly unite communities. That is a goal that we should all stay focused on. We must not allow the right-wing and their extreme outriders to wrap themselves in our flag. I’m proud to have served, I’m proud of my country, and I’m proud to be Labour. Those things go together.
What sort of work will Labour need to do in Barrow to keep Woodcock and the Tories at bay at the next election?
Barrow and Furness is a diverse constituency. As well as the streets I grew up on, we also have rural areas and market towns, all unique areas with their own needs. Together they need an MP who will listen to their needs and provide a genuine vision for the future of the area.
I believe that people in Barrow and Furness fundamentally support Labour Party policies. My focus will be on getting that message out there; on health, on education, on housing, on transport and economic policies, as well as support for defence.
There has been a huge upsurge of energy throughout the CLP. People have been coming back to help organise, and new members are enthused and ready for the fight. We will be out day and night, harnessing that positivity and speaking to voters. We must offer ideas, we must offer hope, we must unite and win.
Finally, I want to tell the people of Barrow that I fully support the Dreadnought Programme. The shipbuilding industry is a huge part of Barrow’s history and traditions and so it should remain. I am committed to the nuclear deterrent – which is, after all, Labour Party policy.
With the world as it is now, rather than how we wish it to be, I think we need a strong hand to support international law and human rights. I was a passionate opponent of the Iraq War, but I’m a huge fan of Aneurin Bevan and that includes his nuclear multilateralism – which I know didn’t endear him to Tribune sixty years or so ago!